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March 10, 2004

Rewind: Hudson River School, Part II

Note – Michael Blowhard and I are pleased with some of our very earliest blogwriting, and we're pained that nearly all of it went unread. It takes a serious while to find a reader or two in the blogosphere. So we've decided to unearth some of that early writing and give it a fresh chance; now and then we're going to indulge ourselves and re-run some of our earliest postings. Here's hoping a few readers get a kick out of them.

I chose this episode, in part, as a response to Michael Blowhard's posting 1903, or Jumping on Terry, which was itself a reaction to some comments by Terry Teachout which could be read as disrespecting 19th century American Art. This is the second part of a two-part series on the Hudson River School. Part I can be read here.


As promised, I am continuing with the history of the Hudson River School as the torch was passed from Thomas Cole to the second generation. But before discussing the specific artists, I wanted to sketch out some of the cultural issues that affected their work.

The settling (and exploitation) of the West was the great American project of this era. However, the relationship between the wealthy patrons of the Hudson River School—who virtually all lived in the urban East—and the rural or wilderness parts of the country were complex. The landscapes of the Hudson River were originally chosen as motifs because they were easily accessible to New York City-based artists; they are, in essence, tourist vistas. (It’s no accident that commercial tourism and the Hudson River school sprang up at roughly the same time, the 1820s, or that the geographical range of the Hudson River school expanded along with the growth of the railroads and steamship lines.) These paintings embodied the only personal relationship the Eastern urban elite was likely to have with undeveloped nature, i.e., that of a tourist.

The Hudson River landscapes also addressed a more general cultural problem of the wealthy, urbanized Eastern elite. For generations European settlers had been used to an essentially practical or “business” relationship with North America—it was a good place to live and extract cash. But now this more leisured elite wanted to find an aesthetic relationship to this vast territory, and their cultural apparatus, oriented towards European models, wasn’t helping. As Rebecca Bedell in her book, “The Anatomy of Nature” notes:

Americans had long suffered from an inferiority complex about their continent. It had been stigmatized as “The New World,” a savage place devoid of historical associations and bereft of intellectual and aesthetic stimuli. In…the American landscape many found answers to these accusations…In the great falls of Niagara and in the sculptured towers and ravines of the Southwest, Americans found substitutes for the castles and cathedrals of Europe. They could take pride in the sublimity, vastness and beauty of their country’s natural wonders.

More generally still, Americans of this era, being an intensely religious people as well as very interested in science and technology, were seeking to reconcile these two belief systems, an attempt that generated an intense interest in geology. Religion and geology were involved in an exciting dialogue at this time, as Rebecca Bedell points out:

…in the early 1820s, it was still widely believed that the earth was approximately six thousand years old, formed, as the Archbishop Ussher of Ireland had calculated, on 26 October 4004 B.C…By the 1830s, however, this view of the earth’s history no longer seemed tenable. In that decade Charles Lyell, in his extraordinarily influential Principles of Geology (1830-33), argued compelling for an earth of immense antiquity, a structurally dynamic earth whose surface had undergone slow but continual transformations since its origins in the almost incalculable depths of the past.

Whether or not this new geologic worldview was compatible or incompatible with revealed religion was an unsettling, but intriguing question. Geology—one of the most theological of sciences in that it is concerned with “first things” and the question of where we come from—was seen as a new revelation that might supplement as well as challenge religious tradition, suddenly making religion particularly concrete and yet vertiginous.

Keeping in mind this intellectual ferment, let's pick up the story of the first of our artists, Asher Durand (1796-1886). After spending the first two decades of his working life as an engraver, Durand started painting portraits in the 1830s and then, encouraged by Thomas Cole—his junior by five years—moved on to landscapes. After a visit to Europe in 1840 (where he became friendly with Constable) Durand regularly visited the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains to make sketches, which he converted into rather stagy, Cole-inspired landscapes during the winter months in his New York studio. However, in the late 1840s, Durand suddenly evolved a very different style of landscape painting, the intimate nature study.

Behind this shift lay a combination of death, religion and geology. Death had dogged Durand throughout the middle years of his extraordinarily long life: his daughter died in 1827, his first wife shortly thereafter, his best friend and patron in 1836, his mentor Cole in 1848, and his second wife (after a long illness) in 1856. The weight of mortality clearly pressed down heavily on him; he developed health problems. He sought solace in a mixture of religion and the science of geology. As I mentioned above, many Americans felt that geology provided mankind with an exhilarating opportunity to read God’s plan in the “records” of the physical world, and Durand began to make this the basis of his art. Durand’s paintings began to become close-ups, not panoramas. He was at great pains to accurately portray the smallest textures and markings of a small selection of nature. Of course, Durand wasn’t painting a few random feet of rock, earth and water—he was investigating the Divine Mind as it was revealed in the microcosm in front of him. Spatially, the result of this approach was a far more close-in style of landscape than had ever been offered to the public as a finished work. (Again, please note, all pictures are thumbnails and a click will let you see a much larger version of the work.)

A.Durand, Landscape: Creek and Rocks, 1850s

Durand’s partner on his 1840 trip to Europe was a much younger artist, John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872). The son of an English immigrant engraver, he worked in his father’s shop and then for other firms as an engraver through the 1830s. Like Durand, he was “called” to landscape painting by Thomas Cole, although in his case by the example of the older man’s paintings. Kensett was a diligent student, staying for seven years in Europe, where he carefully analyzed Claude Lorrain and other European masters. As Robert Hughes notes:

[Kensett] was also taken with the fine, smooth surfaces of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting—David Teniers, Willem van de Velde, and Meindert Hobbema; this kind of treatment, with its near-suppression of texture, would come into play in his later work, in which every crack, shadow and incrustation of mold and moss on a rock would be set forth but balanced against the broader luminosity of sky and water.

During a two-year stay in Britain, Kensett also got to know Constable, and absorbed the English painter’s conviction that any subject could become the vehicle of an artist’s intention and thus qualify as art. Upon his return to America, Kensett focused on painting the typical “tourist” landscapes, although with a noticeably quiet, intensely observed character. It may have been this desire to avoid the spectacular (or to create his own personal version thereof) that led him to this very unusual treatment of the ultimate in dramatic tourist sites, Niagara Falls:

J. Kensett, Niagara Falls, 1851-2

Spatially this painting is a bit of a conundrum. As Rebecca Bedell notes:

The unusual composition of Kensett’s Niagara painting, with the crisply delineated stone slabs filling the foreground and the hazy view of Niagara in the left background, demands an oddly bifurcated gaze. It is virtually impossible to take in simultaneously both the rocks and the falls; we focus on one or the other.

Moreover, there is a bifurcation of “time” at work here also. The huge stone slabs in the foreground are the remains of an earlier version of the Falls that had been eroded and undermined by the river. So while the background is ‘today,’ the foreground is ‘the deep past.’ To heighten this “doubled” vision, the atmospheric perspective of the picture is exaggerated. The detail in the foreground rocks is so sharply observed that it virtually insists on geologic analysis while simultaneously summoning up ideated sensations in the viewer of cold, wet, razor-like edges. The brilliantly painted water, which is responsible for the “ruin” of these huge blocks of stone, continues to lap hungrily at them. The background rocks and the Falls, on the other hand, are so blurred with distance that they become mere patches of paint, dreamlike, without material reality. (The trees at the upper right are a little too hazy given how far behind the rocks they are, but what the heck, not even Velasquez got it right all the time.) From all this I would guess that Kensett is attempting to communicate a sense of the violence of nature, even when it may be hidden in a “picturesque” view.

Twenty years later Kensett painted a series of extremely “minimalist” seascapes of the Long Island and Connecticut shores:

J. Kensett, Eaton's Neck, Long Island, 1872

Here space, while apparently stretching out unbroken to the horizon, can also be read as four flat shapes. As Robert Hughes remarks:

It is as bare as can be. The scimitar curve of white beach, topped by a low rampart of grass and dark scrub, cuts into the right half of the canvas, and that’s it—no figures, not even a seagull. The sky is gray and the water a darker grey, and yet by some alchemy of tonal precision Kensett conveys the bleaching intensity of summer light on [Long Island] Sound. It is as mysterious and almost as abstract as a Rothko, and yet no one who has sailed or fished those waters can fail to recognize its perceptual truth.

But what is this mystery about? I would offer that it lies in the extreme stasis of the picture, redolent of eternity—but an eternity without human presence. The inhuman calm of the picture is just that—un-human. It may be an accident that this was painted in the year of Kensett’s death, but somehow I doubt it.

In any event, the real inheritor of Cole’s mantle was neither Durand nor Kensett, but a ‘child prodigy’ of a painter, Frederic Church (1826-1900.) Born into a wealthy family, Church was studying drawing and painting by the age of sixteen; two years later, one of Cole’s patrons prevailed upon the older man to take Church as his pupil. Within a year, Church had been shown in the National Academy of Design annual exhibition; the following year, he sold his first major oil, to Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum. Church took a studio in New York City and accepted his own first pupil at the ripe old age of 22. He was also maturing mentally, as Robert Hughes points out:

[By the age of 25,] the crucial intellectual influence on his work had come to him: his reading of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). The first two volumes of Humboldt’s Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe had appeared in English translation in the late 1840s. In 1799 this [scientist]…had embarked on a long, hazardous, and profusely rewarding scientific journey to South America, and its results were to become a summa of optimistic, rational thought about the world’s unity under its Creator’s eye…

Church was so inspired by Humboldt’s example that he joined an expedition to South America in 1853. He traveled through Colombia, across the Andes into Ecuador, and returned via Panama, sketching furiously, recording everything from leaves to volcanoes. While the paintings he created from his South American studies were successful, his career was really launched by his version of the most famous landscape in America, Niagara Falls:

F. Church, Niagara, 1857

Fittingly, as befits the bearer of Cole’s crown (“the great American landscape artist”), this painting is spatially complex. Its Panavision format (over twice as wide as high) immediately draws attention to the fact that the image in inscribed on a picture plane. The face of the Falls is seen frontally, and yet the top plane tilts down so that you also see it frontally. Church has cropped the foreground to remove any sense of dry land and to show only dark, swirling water (fabulously rendered—these Hudson River School painters really knew their water); the spectator might very well not be viewing the scene from safety, but about to go over the edge at any moment. The somber sky sounds an ominous chord with the dark green water; the only relief is the high note of the rainbow. The painting is terrifically successful at describing the actual sensation of the Falls themselves, conveying the sheer superhuman power and grandeur of the rushing water.

This landscape became the most famous picture in America, and it was even sent on tour to England, where it amazed John Ruskin. Church became even more terrifically famous for his enormous, synthetic South American landscapes (“Heart of the Andes” is five feet by ten feet in size, “Cotopaxi” is four feet by seven), which many observers read as an endorsement of American “Manifest Destiny” policies: i.e., that the U.S. was destined to expand its rule over the entire New World, North and South. I must say that I find these “optimistic” and “scientific” landscapes far less compelling than his “pessimistic” or “ominous” paintings. When, only a few years later a human tidal wave overwhelmed America in the form of the Civil War, Church’s reaction to the apparent wreck of the American project was this canvas:

F. Church, The Icebergs, 1861

This arctic scene (not entirely imagined, as Church had taken a recent cruise into northern waters) is the very image of desolation. On the great floating hulks of ice are scattered a few tokens of human presence, but obviously everyone has come to a bad end. The ominous feeling is heightened by the yawning gap that opens between the foreground tower of ice and the rear ice-mountain, together forming a sort of bay of indeterminate size (the similarity of the forms in the near foreground and the far distance render the sense of the distance unstable; sometimes it looks close, and other times it seems quite far away.) The color scheme is equally unsettling, with the misty sky and the water rendered in warm colors, while the ice glows blue and green (the same green, come to think of it, that symbolizes the unstoppable power of Niagara.) Church has managed to reverse virtually all the normal color effects of landscape, with his warm sky and sea, his cool foreground and warm distance.

Perhaps I am taking an excessively subjective view of Church's character, being a somewhat depressive individual myself. Obviously, Church’s terrific technique could get him through virtually any subject, but for me it appears that when he is dealing with the destructive power of nature his paintings become more spatially complex, more resourceful, and, well, just more sexy. I, at least, think it possible that Church's embrace of von Humboldt's "unity of nature under God's benevolent eye" was possibly a curative for a rather less than optimistic nature (a character which was, nonetheless, intoxicated--or uneasy--at the way his considerable artistic powers allowed him to play God.)

In any event, I hope I’ve been able to show that this “second” generation (so to speak) of Hudson River School painters created a diverse, intellectually active and serious body of art; moreover, one that despite starting from the common ground of the European landscape tradition—Claude Lorrain and the Dutch—had developed its own head of steam and was heading off in directions that had no very close analogue to contemporary European practice. In particular I want to to emphasize the "constructive" work the Hudson River School undertook: over the decades, it succeeded in building an aesthetic relationship between European immigrants and the North American continent--a relationship that was neither natural or traditional. I suspect that the unfamiliarity of Old World audiences with the nature of this challenge may have prevented the Hudson River School's accomplishment from being given the recognition it deserves. (At a minimum, whether you agree with this or not, I hope you dig the pictures—I love this stuff.)



posted by Friedrich at March 10, 2004


But what about Bierstadt and his influence on early western photography (i.e. Ansel Adams)?

Posted by: Frankenstein on March 10, 2004 2:13 PM

Interesting and enlightening as ever, Friedrich. Thanks. I particularly liked Durand's "Creek and Rocks" use of color and light.

Posted by: Deb on March 10, 2004 7:51 PM

You correctly point out the religious impulse in this art and it is interesting to note that there is very little in the way of a European-style religious art tradition in America. The Southwest is the exception where Spanish-Mexican Catholic traditions had major influence and it's greatest works are in folk and primative manifestations.

In the East this was partially due to the Protestant anti-iconic traditions that prevailed in the early years. One could argue that the Hudson River school in it's various forms was American art's search for God.

Posted by: Harry on March 10, 2004 11:49 PM

I am so surprised by how little Niagara Falls has changed, rather than by how much.

Posted by: annette on March 11, 2004 11:10 AM

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